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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Israel moves deeper into Rafah, fights Hamas militants regrouping in northern Gaza

    Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Deir al Balah, Gaza, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

    RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The exodus of Palestinians from Gaza’s last refuge accelerated Sunday as Israeli forces pushed deeper into the southern city of Rafah. Israel also pounded the territory’s devastated north, where some Hamas militants have regrouped in areas the military said it had cleared months ago.

    Rafah is considered Hamas' last stronghold. Some 300,000 of the more than 1 million civilians sheltering there have fled the city following evacuation orders from Israel, which says it must invade to dismantle Hamas and return scores of hostages taken from Israel in the Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war.

    Neighboring Egypt issued its strongest objection yet to the Rafah offensive, saying it intends to formally join South Africa's case at the International Court of Justice alleging Israel is committing genocide in Gaza — an accusation Israel rejects. The foreign ministry statement cited “the worsening severity and scope of the Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians.”

    United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a statement that he cannot see how a full-scale invasion of Rafah can be reconciled with international humanitarian law.

    U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated opposition to a major military assault on Rafah, and told CBS that Israel would “be left holding the bag on an enduring insurgency” without an exit from Gaza and postwar governance plan.

    Gaza has been left without a functioning government, leading to a breakdown in public order and allowing Hamas' armed wing to reconstitute itself even in the hardest-hit areas. On Sunday, Hamas touted attacks against Israeli soldiers in Rafah and near Gaza City.

    Israel has yet to offer a detailed plan for postwar governance in Gaza, saying only that it will maintain open-ended security control over the enclave of about 2.3 million Palestinians.

    Internationally mediated talks over a cease-fire and hostage release appeared to be at a standstill.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Memorial Day speech vowed to continue fighting until victory in memory of those killed in the war. But in Tel Aviv, hundreds of protesters stood outside military headquarters and raised candles during a minute-long siren marking the day's start, demanding an immediate cease-fire deal to return the hostages.

    Netanyahu has rejected postwar plans proposed by the United States for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern Gaza with support from Arab and Muslim countries. Those plans depend on progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state, which Israel's government opposes.

    The Oct. 7 attack killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage. Militants still hold about 100 captives and the remains of more than 30.

    Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. Israel says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence.

    HEAVY BOMBARDMENT IN THE NORTH

    Palestinians reported heavy Israeli bombardment overnight in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp and other areas in northern Gaza, which has been largely isolated by Israeli forces for months. U.N. officials say there is a “full-blown famine” there.

    Residents said Israeli warplanes and artillery also struck the Zeitoun area east of Gaza City, where troops have battled militants for over a week. They have called on tens of thousands of people to relocate to nearby areas.

    “It was a very difficult night,” said Abdel-Kareem Radwan, a 48-year-old from Jabaliya. He said they could hear intense and constant bombing since midday Saturday. “This is madness.”

    First responders with the Palestinian Civil Defense said they were unable to respond to multiple calls for help from both areas, as well as from Rafah.

    In central Gaza, staff at the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah said an Israeli strike killed four people.

    Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the top Israeli military spokesman, said forces were also operating in the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which were heavily bombed in the war's opening days.

    Hamas’ military wing said it shelled Israeli special forces east of Jabaliya and fired mortar shells at troops and vehicles entering the Rafah border crossing area.

    “Hamas’ regime cannot be toppled without preparing an alternative to that regime,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Israel’s Maariv daily, channeling the growing frustration felt by many Israelis more than seven months into the war. “The only people who can govern Gaza after the war are Gazans, with a lot of support and help from the outside.”

    CIVILIANS FLEE IN THE SOUTH

    Rafah had been sheltering 1.3 million Palestinians, most of whom had fled fighting elsewhere. But Israel has now evacuated the eastern third of the city.

    Most people are heading to the heavily damaged nearby city of Khan Younis or Muwasi, a coastal tent camp where some 450,000 people are already living in squalid conditions.

    The U.N. has warned that a planned full-scale invasion would further cripple humanitarian operations and cause a surge in civilian deaths. The main aid entry points near Rafah are already affected. Israeli troops have captured the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing, forcing it to shut down.

    A senior Egyptian official told The Associated Press that Cairo has lodged protests with Israel, the United States and European governments, saying the offensive has put its decades-old peace treaty with Israel — a cornerstone of regional stability — at high risk. The official was not authorized to brief media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

    U.S. President Joe Biden has said he won't provide offensive weapons to Israel for Rafah, and his administration says there is “reasonable” evidence that Israel had breached international law protecting civilians.

    Israel rejects those allegations, saying it tries to avoid harming civilians. It blames Hamas for the high toll because the militants fight in dense, residential areas.

    In the West Bank, where deadly violence has increased since the war began, the Palestinian Health Ministry said a man was shot dead by Israeli forces in Balata refugee camp in Nablus. The army said its forces responded with live fire after being shot at by militants in the camp.

    ___

    Krauss reported from Jerusalem and Magdy from Cairo. Associated Press writer Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed.

    An Israeli soldier pays respect at a memorial for victims of the bloody Oct. 7, cross-border attack by Hamas militants on the eve of Israel's annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of nationalistic attacks, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardments of the Gaza Strip in front of the morgue of the Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for the 'Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terrorism' at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, May 12, 2024. Israel will observe Memorial Day from sunset tonight until sunset May 13, when Independence Day begins.( Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)

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